Photographer Mathew Brady at Gettysburg Seminary in 1863. 

When I began my journey as Gettysburg Seminary’s 12th president, I expected eventually to retire and pass the baton to Number 13. Instead, I end my tenure by working with a wonderful colleague — David Lose of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia — as we complete the consolidation process that on July 1 will result in a new entity: United Lutheran Seminary.

Several insights occur to me as I look back from the end of the road. I offer them here with the hope they might be helpful to my colleagues:


1. Never lose sight of the privilege of your calling. Few individuals have the honor of leading a seminary. While an honest assessment will reveal the limits of presidential influence in any institution, the reality is that leaders in our arenas exert considerable sway on the future of religious life.


2. Identify an image that will sustain you on difficult days. My own is that of Gettysburg Seminary’s founder, Samuel Simon Schmucker. In early July 1863 Schmucker returned to campus after it had endured the greatest battle ever fought on American soil. Some 600 wounded soldiers lay in the seminary’s main buildings; cries of anguish rang out for weeks. During challenging times in my presidency, when tempted to throw myself a pity party, I think of the challenges Brother Schmucker faced. I remind myself that God is in charge, and my calling is to be faithful and exercise wisdom.  


3. Surround yourself with capable colleagues. Often I have envied peers who excel in every area — superb administrators, eloquent speakers, provocative writers, and inspiring leaders. My own wheelhouse has a smaller inventory. But I have excelled in one area — identifying and hiring persons whose abilities far surpass mine. This is as it should be. A seminary deserves the most talented individuals willing to serve.


4. Share most of the credit; take all the blame. As institutional goals are achieved, folks typically credit the president. That acknowledgment may be deserved, but accomplishments seldom are due to one person’s efforts. Over the years I’ve tried to honor all colleagues involved in complex endeavors. And, in an attempt to build confidence within my team, I’ve accepted the blame for inevitable missteps.   


5. Strive for balance. Some presidents spend much of their time off campus; others stick close to home. Both extremes invite imbalance. I have witnessed presidents who are constantly on the speaking circuit because they believe they are raising their schools’ visibility. The risk: Things can falter at home. Similarly, presidents who resist building off-campus relationships may isolate their schools. Periodic check-ins with trustees and others can help strike the proper proportion.


6. Be wary of extended sabbaticals. I once heard a retired president admit, “I never fully regained my leadership after a six-month sabbatical.” I remembered that when I was granted a six-month “semi-sabbatical.” By returning to campus for a day or two every few weeks I reminded the seminary community I was still in charge, and I continued offering support to colleagues who were bearing added responsibilities during my time away.  


7. Discern what the Spirit, church, and institution require of you. Presidential roles are always evolving. As Robert Hughes reflected upon his retirement from the presidency of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, at different times, schools have needed presidents who were pastors, program developers, CEOs, fundraisers, or visionaries. At this juncture, I think all presidents need to be sustainability-seekers. Some need to be game-changers, even surgeons willing to take up the scalpel to save a life. 


Almost 20 years ago, Father Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, wrote in In Trust that administrative leadership is “something that is close to the heart of the Gospel.” I couldn’t agree more — our stewardship of institutions and people is rarely easy, but it’s a sacred trust.  


The Rev. Dr. Michael Cooper-White will retire in June after 17 years as president of Gettysburg Seminary, one of eight seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 


A longer version of this article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Colloquy Online, the newsletter of the Association of Theological Schools.

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